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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

11. Modernist Portraits

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Sherwood Anderson
- Hart Crane
- F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Susan Glaspell
- Ernest Hemingway
- Nella Larsen
- Marianne Moore
- John Dos Passos
- Gertrude Stein
- Wallace Stevens
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Nella Larsen (1891-1964)

Portrait of Nella Larsen
[4553] James Allen, (1928), courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Nella Larsen Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
Nella Larsen, like Quicksand's Helga, was born to parents of different races: her father was West Indian and her mother was Danish. After her father died (when Larsen was two), her mother married a white man and raised Larsen in an all-white environment. Her adopted family was embarrassed by her dark skin, and Larsen always felt that she did not belong. From 1907 to 1908 she studied at a high school associated with Fisk University. She left Fisk and spent the next three years with relatives in Denmark, auditing classes at the University of Copenhagen. In 1912 she returned to the United States and pursued a nursing degree and career in New York. She married Elmer Samuel Imes, an African American physicist who worked at Fisk University. Larsen gave up nursing in 1922 and worked for the New York Public Library. She became involved with the artistic community in Harlem, and four years later, she decided to pursue a career as a writer.

Larsen completed two novels--Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), about a light-skinned black woman passing herself as white--which the prestigious publishing firm Alfred A. Knopf published. She was assisted by a white patron of Harlem Renaissance writers, Carl Van Vechten, himself the author of the controversial novel Nigger Heaven. While many believed that a celebration of the "primitive" aspects of African American culture benefited the advancement of the race, others thought that the depictions of blacks, and especially black women, in Van Vechten's and other authors' works contributed to a construction of racial identity that severely limited possibilities for African Americans.

Quicksand wrestles overtly with this problem of establishing an "authentic" racial identity: Helga prizes much about upper-class white culture, but also longs to understand and appreciate those things that distinguish African Americans. Throughout the novel, the mixed-race Helga finds herself torn in her loyalties and disconnected from both whites and blacks.

Larsen's novels were well received, and in 1930 she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in creative writing, the first African American woman to win one. She went to Spain to work, but she published little after receiving the award. One short story drew allegations of plagiarism, and Larsen probably stopped writing as a result of the controversy over her work. She returned to nursing and withdrew from the literary circles of which she had been a part. Her novels were largely forgotten until they were reissued in 1986, when her reputation as a significant Harlem Renaissance writer was revived.

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